Not yet 50/50: barriers to the progress of senior women in the Australian public service

Sex discrimination Public sector Discrimination Women Leadership Public service Australia

The quest for gender equality in the workplace is an ongoing struggle in a “Good Society”. In most countries around the world women remain in the minority when it comes to senior positions in both the public and private sectors (e.g. OECD 2009; McKinsey and Company 2010, 2012; Ernst and Young 2013). That there are barriers to their progression is not in doubt. What is not well understood is the nature of those barriers and the extent to which barriers to progression in the public sector might differ from those in the private sector. Existing academic and grey research is mainly drawn from the private sector suggesting a range of interrelated factors including the problem of ‘unconscious bias’; where perceptions of individuals affect an individual’s behaviour without conscious knowledge. This means that it is not easy to detect cultural bias which can be embedded in organizational structures and practices. In consequence, it is extremely difficult for women to adapt in systems where bias is mobilized against them unconsciously through organizational norms and values. Surprisingly, there has been a stark absence of empirical studies in the field of Australian public administration to investigate these assumptions and to assess the policy implications.

The purpose of this report is to help bridge this gap. It does this through a study of the perceptions of senior men and women about the cultural and systemic barriers affecting the recruitment, retention and promotion of senior women in six Australian Commonwealth departments in the Australian Public Service (APS). The report then proposes a range of mitigating strategies for navigating around these barriers and achieving and maintaining a better gender balance across the APS. These strategies are integrated within a systems model of behavioural change which we hope will prove useful to public organizations embarking on diversity reform initiatives.

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